Imagine 125 million refugees flooding into the United States (population: 328 million). That is what Lebanon has experienced on a per capita basis. Since 2011, this nation of 4 million people has seen an influx of some 1.5 million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war next door. “I find it a miracle this country hasn’t exploded,” a Western diplomat told me last week. “Most countries would never have allowed this to happen.”
This is the dog that didn’t bark — perhaps the most surprising good-news story in the Middle East. Lebanon has always been on the verge of collapse because of divisions among Sunnis, Shiites, Druze and Christians. In 1975, the growing power of Palestinian refugees upset the delicate sectarian balance and triggered a civil war that ended only in 1990, when the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad occupied the country.
In 2011, when a rebellion broke out against Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon could not remain aloof. Hezbollah, the Shiite militia, sent fighters to save the Alawite-dominated Syrian regime. (Alawism is a Shiite sect.) Sunni extremists retaliated with terrorist attacks in Lebanon. It was easy to imagine the Syrian civil war engulfing this small Mediterranean nation. But it didn’t happen. Why not?
Part of the answer has to do with searing memories of the Lebanese civil war. None of the sectarian groups want to revisit that nightmare. Though Lebanon’s government is often paralyzed by political gridlock, it has continued to function — and, at least when it comes to the security services, to function effectively. The Lebanese Armed Forces, buttressed by U.S. aid, have coordinated with Hezbollah, buttressed by Iranian aid, in a campaign to clear Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants out of their strongholds along the Syrian border. But Lebanon could never have coped with the refugee influx were it not for the support of the United Nations — and in particular of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world body’s refugee agency.
“If UNHCR weren’t taking the lead, it would have catastrophic repercussions,” Bassil Hujeiri, the mayor of Arsal, told me. Hujeiri should know: His town of 40,000 in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon’s north has been inundated by 40,000 Syrian refugees. [Continue reading…]